Madonna and Barbra are fans. Broadway, meet Lempicka.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, April 18, 2024

Madonna and Barbra are fans. Broadway, meet Lempicka.
Eden Espinosa, center, as the title character in the musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theater in New York, March 18, 2024. The new musical aims to restore the reputation, in life and art, of the ambitious yet undervalued painter Tamara de Lempicka. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- Playwright Carson Kreitzer specializes in difficult women, disparaged women, women who should be better known. But 14 years ago, when a friend suggested painter Tamara de Lempicka as a potential subject, Kreitzer wasn’t initially enthusiastic. The name meant nothing to her.

Then in a used bookstore, a cover with Lempicka’s name caught her eye. Flipping through the monograph, image after glossy image, Kreitzer realized that she already knew Lempicka’s brash, gleaming work. She had seen it reproduced in Madonna videos and in Van Cleef & Arpels ads. There in that bookstore she felt compelled to write something as big, bold and richly colored as the paintings.

“Tamara made me a musical writer,” Kreitzer, who had never written a musical before, said in a recent phone interview. “She demanded it.”

After years of development, “Lempicka,” a biomusical by Kreitzer (book and lyrics) and Matt Gould (book and music), opens on April 14 at Broadway’s Longacre Theater. It is a work of recuperation, aiming to restore the reputation, in life and art, of a queer woman and an ambitious painter, who has often been undervalued, in the art market and beyond.

“She wanted everything,” Rachel Chavkin, the musical’s director, said of her heroine. “She wanted more from life and ultimately life lost interest in her.”

When it comes to reclaiming Lempicka, the musical is not alone. A concurrent selling exhibition at Sotheby’s, “The World of Tamara: A Celebration of Lempicka and Art Deco,” features several of Lempicka’s paintings, including “L’Éclat,” a portrait of a woman, her hair coiled like strips of film, and “Nu aux Buildings,” a sensuous nude backed by skyscrapers. This fall, San Francisco’s de Young museum will host the artist’s first major museum retrospective in the United States.

Furio Rinaldi, who, along with Gioia Mori, is curating the de Young retrospective, believes that now, a century after she began her career, Lempicka’s moment has finally arrived. “Someone like Lempicka, who presents a world of assertive women — incredibly empowered, towering — it’s an imagination that really speaks to today,” he said.

Lempicka was born in the 1890s to Polish parents. The precise year and location of that birth are the subject of debate, and according to Marisa de Lempicka, one of Lempicka’s great-granddaughters, the family only recently learned that Lempicka’s parents were Jews who had converted to Christianity. With her first husband, Tadeusz Lempicka, she fled Russia and arrived in Paris, nearly penniless, in 1918.

Painting had always intrigued her, and after a few years of study, she began to exhibit her work. Quickly she became an in-demand portraitist. Her subjects were often her friends: louche aristocrats, nightclub habitués, lovers of both sexes. She also painted her family — Tadeusz and their daughter, Kizette — though rarely in a flattering light. Her style, which she described as “clear painting,” looks backward to mannerism and forward to futurism and has a high-gloss sheen to it, like the chrome plating of a motorcar.

“She is just a technically masterful painter,” Julian Dawes, the head of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, said. “It would be virtually impossible to fake because it is so specific, because she disguises her brushstroke.” A book by her daughter, Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall, quotes Lempicka’s own assessment of her style. “It was neat,” she said. “It was finished.” Contemporary critics called it strange, perverse.

She had a predilection for painting women as modern, urban, desiring. In one of her most famous works, “Autoportrait,” she paints herself, steely-eyed, wearing a leather helmet and leather gloves, in the driver’s seat of a green Bugatti. (She knew the power of the shade, of the silhouette, even though her real car was a yellow Renault.) “She was one of the first painters that painted women in a powerful way, in an independent way,” Marisa de Lempicka said. “They are in charge of their lives besides being glamorous and beautiful.”

Lempicka believed in glamour, curating her own image by way of parties and precisely staged photographs. Her works sold well through the 1930s and even into the 1940s, a period that saw her leave Europe, with her second husband, Baron Raoul Kuffner, for America. At times her image and her nickname — the Baroness with the brush — superseded her art.

Tastes changed, as did Lempicka’s style, which veered toward abstract expressionism. Her work, old and new, was disfavored for decades, regarded, if it was regarded at all, as kitsch. Her rehabilitation began in 1972, when a Paris gallery organized a celebrated retrospective of her work. It continued after her death, in Mexico, in 1980. (Lempicka, in typically extravagant fashion, asked to have her ashes scattered over the crater of a volcano.) She then acquired famous collectors — chiefly Madonna, who used Lempicka’s paintings in her videos for “Open Your Heart” and “Vogue,” but also Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson.

Her work inspired several plays, including “Tamara,” an interactive show about her disastrous attempt to paint poet Gabriele D’Annunzio that ran in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and in New York. At auction, her paintings began to draw higher and higher prices, culminating with “Portrait of Marjorie Ferry,” which sold for $21.2 million in 2020. This dovetails with a resurgence in art deco, the movement most closely associated with Lempicka, and with the current vogue for re-evaluating women who have been maligned or belittled by the art historical canon.

But Lempicka has yet to become a household name and her historical reputation remains mixed, the paintings too gleaming, too gorgeous to invite serious appraisal. “Lempicka has been considered and diminished to a phenomenon pertaining to the art deco period, a phenomenon of decoration, of fashion, rather than a great painter and a fantastic draftsperson,” Rinaldi said.

That problem of decoration, of fashion, applies particularly to the portraits, great works of compressed narrative, in part because they have lent themselves so readily to advertisement (makeup, jewelry, kitchenware) and to the runway (Armani, Max Mara, Ferragamo have all produced Lempicka-inspired collections). Marisa de Lempicka, who oversees her great-grandmother’s estate, is pursuing other licensing agreements.

Rinaldi said that while the art world venerates male artists — Warhol, Dalí, Picasso — who make their way into popular culture, it can judge women harshly. Her success at auction, he said, “reinforces the stereotype that she belongs to a taste that is very easy, that is commercial, that is decorative.” A goal of the de Young retrospective is to dispel this idea.

“We don’t want to present her as a poster girl for the art deco, but rather a serious painter in full command of her process,” he said.

Marisa de Lempicka, who has lived with the paintings all her life, sees that seriousness, too. “At first you can think that her paintings are cold,” she said. “But stand in front of a painting for a while and you will start seeing a lot of depth. Look at the eyes. There’s so much soul in the eyes.”

Strength is there, too. And a startling hunger, which is what attracted Kreitzer. “This love of a certain lush power in a woman’s body, really, really grabbed me,” she said.

Chavkin felt herself drawn to Lempicka’s unconventionality and her appetite, describing her as an “incredibly ‘devourous’ woman.” Lempicka, she said, “was breaking through gender lines in a time when that was welcomed and celebrated to a point and then slammed down.

“It’s undeniable to me that Tamara’s spirit and her work have shaped how we think of feminism and female power today.” If the retrospective makes a case for her art, the musical is a celebration of her life, which makes a virtue of Lempicka’s drive, passion and resilience.

For Eden Espinosa, who has been with the musical since its premiere in Williamstown in 2018, embodying all that isn’t easy. “I am just barely tapping into and scratching the surface,” she said. In her younger years, Espinosa said, she had long been conditioned to downplay her own hunger and ambition. But that isn’t Lempicka’s way. “To give myself the permission to inhabit the space that she takes up, it’s scary, but also exciting,” she said.

To Espinosa, and the musical’s other creators, “Lempicka” has an immediacy, the feeling of an artist finally meeting her moment. They can see her influence on contemporary feminism and on present-day performance, art and design.

“Tamara was definitely ahead of her time,” Kreitzer said. “I mean, my God, the world was not ready.” Considering the musical, the retrospective, the rising auction prices, perhaps the world is ready now. Or Lempicka, in her imagined Bugatti, might still be outracing us.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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